The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a group of activists characterized by drag parody of a Roman Catholic order of nuns. In conjunction with the performance of camp (hilarious ironic parody, often done with exaggerated effeminate behavior), the Sisters are also a communal expression of Gay spiritual culture with their own initiations and rites. Humor is part of their spirituality, and they see themselves in the tradition of sacred clowns.
The Sisters have a number of orders and missions throughout the United States as well as Australia, Colombia, France, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Uruguay. Wherever they perform their rites, the Sisters’ mission is to promulgate universal joy, expiate stigmatic guilt and serve the community. Some of the humorous names that Sisters have adopted are Sister Flora Goodthyme, Sister Barbie Mitzvah, Sister Constance Craving of the Holey Desire, Sister Anni Coque l’Doo, Sister Tilly Comes Again, Sister Dinah Might, Sister Lily White Superior Posterior, Sister Mysteria of the Broken Hymen, and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch.
The Sisters’ sistory (history) officially began in San Francisco in 1979, but their origins were from a mid-1970s Iowa City theater troupe called the Sugar Plum Faeries. The troupe obtained nun’s habits (religious clothing) from a Cedar Rapids convent. They claimed they needed the habits for a production of the musical, The Sound of Music, but used them instead for a skit as nuns that strip to lingerie for a pom-pom routine done to the Iowa Fight Song. The habits made their way with one of the Sugar Plum Faeries (who would eventually become Sister Power Hungry Bitch) to San Francisco. He then presented himself as Sister Adhanarsvara (named after Ardhanarishvara, a half man/half woman Hindu deity) and accompanied his fellow sisters on Easter Sunday to the streets of the city, brandishing toy machine guns and protesting a café where Gay employees were on strike.
In 1980, the Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was officially named. Sister Hysterectoria (who would go on to found the Order in New York) designed a distinctive habit for the Order based on the clothing of medieval Flemish ladies-in-waiting, including a wimple (a garment that covers the head, neck, and chin, leaving the rest of the face uncovered). This wimple featured ear brassieres, headgear that was originally made from a bra (also known as “ear boobs”). Performances included pom-pom routines.
The Sisters’ performance of humor was part of a larger ethos of public activism, which included chasing away homophobic Christian proselytizers from Castro Street. In 1980, they performed the “Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril” to protest the Three Mile Island disaster, which included the Five Sorrowful Nuclear Realities: the Bombing of Hiroshima, the Bombing of Nagasaki, the Murder of Karen Silkwood, the Chernobyl Disaster, and the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. In October that same year, they held a bingo-and-disco fundraiser for Gay Cuban refugees. Other fundraisers included sex parties and the sale of ashes from the Barracks, a bathhouse that had burnt down, as sacred relics.
In 1981, Sister Boom Boom ran for city office as “Nun of the Above,” and finished in ninth place, which led to an ordinance that candidates had to run for office using their real names.
The Order’s response to the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s was to have fundraisers for the sick, design a humorous pamphlet in 1982 called Play Fair! to educate people about safer-sex practices, and hold an AIDS candlelight vigil in 1983, which featured a banner saying, “Fighting For Our Lives” and a speech by Sister Florence Nightmare, an HIV+ healthcare professional who had helped design Play Fair!
When the Pope visited San Francisco in 1987, the Sisters performed a public exorcism in Union Square in protest at the Catholic Church’s stand against Queer lifestyles, and canonized (made into a saint) the murdered Gay icon Harvey Milk, which supposedly resulted in the Sisters being placed on the Papal List of Heretics. By 1990, there were chapters in cities across the USA, in Australia, and in Britain. The Sisters also participated in 1996 Burning Man festivities in the Nevada desert, distributing medical marijuana brownies and tequila for Oh! Communion and setting up a prayer shrine. In 2003, the Sisters responded to the invasion and occupation of Iraq with a Pride parade float entitled “Weapons of Ass Destruction,” featuring a Texas cowboy riding a giant penis-shaped rocket.
Among the events sponsored by the Sisters are W.H.O.O.T.Y. (We’ll Hold Our Own, Thank You) for women with cancer (1995), Wig-Out to collect wigs from drag queens for women undergoing chemotherapy, Butt-Plug Bingo, and annual Easter festivities with an Easter Bonnet Contest and Hunky Jesus Contest.
Habits, Houses, and Vocation
The Sisters’ habits are often elaborately accessorized, and Sisters wear white face paint and outrageous makeup. Each community is called a House (sometimes also called an Order or Abbey), and each House has its own distinctive habit.
There is more to the Sisters than parody because the Sisters aim not to lampoon nuns, but to actually be nuns. As with any religious order, they consider their role as Sisters to be a spiritual calling. Prospective Sisters go through a process of initiation. Aspirants attend meetings and activities but are not allowed to wear the habit. They must have two Fully Professed (members with all rights and privileges) Sisters as sponsors. These sponsors are called the aspirant’s Big Sisters.
Postulants are members without rights who are encouraged to wear interesting outfits, but not whiteface makeup or wimple, and require the sponsorship of an existing Sister while learning more about the Order, attending meetings, helping out with events, and working in the Archives. The sponsor is considered to be their Mother. Novices continue their period of learning and are allowed to wear a white veil, wimple, and whiteface makeup. They must attend meetings, help with events, throw an event of their own, and work in the Archives. It is only after this process that one is given a black veil and becomes a full-fledged Sister.
While the Sisters clearly draw on religious aesthetics, they also perform an actual spiritual role within their communities. The Sisters offer no official doctrine, but they sometimes function as spiritual facilitators, providing and overseeing rituals such as marriages, blessings, and canonizing Gay icons. The Sisters accessorize traditional images and liturgies, which are playful parodies on one level, but they also perform a serious function by providing spiritual spaces that speak to the LGBTQ community. One particularly well-known example of this took place in the United Kingdom where the Sisters created a liturgy from polari (Gay English folk speech from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) in order to canonize the filmmaker Derek Jarman.
The Ave Prayer
As part of their liturgies, the Sisters use a rewrite of the Hail Mary called the Ave Prayer:
Hail, O Divine Mother,
Source of Wisdom and Delight
Blessed are You among the Deities
And Blessed are all of Us
Your Loving Companions
Holy Maiden, Wise Womyn, Crone,
Protect us from the Earth Defilers
Now in this Hour of Our Need. (Nema/Amen)
Evans, Amie and Trebor Healey, eds. “Good Habits to Hang Onto: An Interview with Sister Soami of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” Queer and Catholic. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Glenn, Cathy B. “Queering the (Sacred) Body Politic: Considering the Performative Cultural Politics of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” Theory & Event 7:1 (2003).
Lucas, Ian. “The Color of His Eyes: Polari and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, eds. Anna Livia and Kira Hall, 85-94. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Senelik, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre. London: Routledge, 2000.